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Gaston Georis

Big-hearted Belgian, restaurateur and musician Gaston Georis dies at 79

by Mary Schley

A MULTITALENTED, congenial, creative man who helped change the culinary landscape of Carmel, Gaston Georis died last week, five months shy of his 80th birthday. The owner of La Bicyclette restaurant, Georis was a long-time musician, a former professor, and the first importer of Birkenstocks, among many other achievements.

He was diagnosed with liver cancer just a couple of months ago and passed away in the Lincoln Street home he shared with his wife, Sheila Sheppard, for more than half a century. “It was quick enough that he didn’t suffer, and slow enough that we could say goodbye,” his older son, Gabe, said this week. “There was nothing left unsaid between us. He took his last breath in his sleep.”

Born in Belgium during the war in July 1941, Georis moved to the United States in the mid-1950s with his parents and brother, Walter, after they came to visit their sister, who had married an American serviceman and was living in Southern California. His mother liked California so much that she convinced his father they should stay.

Gaston Georis

Photographed at Casanova Restaurant by son Gabe Georis when he was in high school in the mid-1990s, Gaston Georis and Sheila Sheppard shared more than 50 years together.

The Endless Summer

After Georis skipped a year of high school and graduated in 1958 when he was 16, he went on to earn a degree in French literature from UC Riverside, where he also met Sheppard, and graduated in 1963. At 21, he began teaching at Polytechnic High in Riverside, where the students also came to recognize him from the band he and his brother had formed, The Sandals, which recorded the music for Bruce Brown’s iconic 1966 surfing documentary, “The Endless Summer”.

A master’s degree in French lit and a desire to teach at the college level eventually brought him to the Monterey Peninsula to work at what was then the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies and is now Middlebury Institute. His brother was already here running a photography studio, and after their sister and her new boyfriend joined them, they together opened La Boheme, a French restaurant on Dolores that served a prix fixe menu once daily. (La Bicyclette occupies the building now.)

Their foray into restaurants led to more, including Pacific Grove’s Fandango, owned since 1986 by Pierre and Marietta Bain, and Casanova, a longtime favorite of locals and visitors. They also had a bakery, as well as a shop that carried the country’s first Birkenstocks. The siblings eventually divested themselves of some of those businesses, and later, the brothers divided their small restaurant empire, with Georis retaining control of La Bicyclette, which he often referred to as his “little jewel.”

“As a businessperson and restaurateur, he was unique in his authenticity,” Gabe said. Not only did Georis love his restaurant and everyone who worked there, they all adored him. “He treated everyone in a way that they felt understood, and they were often inspired by him.”

That warmth and inclusion extended to his customers, too, as he often took time to welcome them, thank them for their patronage — and occasionally pause to read their fortunes in their bowls of the restaurant’s well known chocolate mousse for two.
“He was able to lead from the heart in a way that nobody ever took advantage of, at least not in any major way,” Gabe said. “It’s easy to be a sucker and it’s easy to be a dictator, but to find that fine line in between being heartfelt and caring and not letting people take advantage of you is a real tightrope to walk, and I think he was a master of that.”

Just to visit

Throughout his life, Georis continued writing music — a talent his younger son, Nico, inherited — and wrote his memoirs. “He just finished writing a book,” Gabe said. “They were working on editing it, and he had a publisher lined up.” Plans are in the works to get it published.

Gabe said his own work in the restaurant business was inspired by his upbringing and his father, who before the pandemic frequently visited his restaurants, Pescadero and Barmel — but only to spend time with his son and the customers, and to enjoy himself, often dancing in the bar late into the night. “He was really hands-off and wanted me to do it,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be like, ‘Dad, help me out here.’”

Sheppard and their sons will continue running La Bicyclette, which was named Business of the Year by the Carmel Chamber of Commerce in 2019. “My mom and my brother and I will all be involved,” he said. “Obviously, with my experience, I will be spearheading the thing a bit more. We’ll keep his vision alive.”

The importance of travel

Georis’ love of travel and other cultures inspired him to take his family to see other parts of the world. “We lived in France when I was 10, and I moved to Spain when I was 18 because of that culture he created — understanding different people and cultures and languages, and trying to understand people and trying to have meaningful communication with people from all over the world,” Gabe said.

It’s an experience he wants to share with his own children. “What I learned was an appreciation and to channel his observant and curious nature,” he said. “I want to emulate that for my kids, because I think traveling and being exposed to other people and cultures is the best education you can get.”

He’ll continue trying to follow in his father’s footsteps in terms of character, too. “My dad was such a kind and honest and good person through and through,” he said. “There wasn’t a bad bone in his body.”

Georis, a devoted cyclist, was also remarkably healthy. His cancer diagnosis followed minor symptoms that arose around Thanksgiving and had worsened within a month. “He had a really healthy life all the way up to the end. The first time he ever set foot in a hospital in his life was at Christmas,” Gabe said. “He definitely was not the kind of person who wanted to be dependent on anyone. He didn’t want to be a burden.”

Plans are in the works for a celebration of Georis’ life, but they’ll wait until people are allowed to gather again. “He was such a people person,” Gabe said, “I think he would love for us to throw a party in his honor.”